Margus Hunt knew he had eight hours to fill on the flight over the Pacific Ocean, so he asked the SMU staff to put together film of Fresno State for him to study. He hit the Bulldogs like a tidal wave Monday night in the Hawaii Bowl.
The 6-foot-8 defensive end raced around right tackle to blindside Derek Carr and force a fumble. Hunt smashed into running back Robbie Rouse on a delayed handoff and forced another fumble. On a three-man rush, he sacked Carr in the end zone for a safety.
It was an inspiring performance by the senior from Estonia, and it set the tone for the Mustangs’ 43-10 win.
”That was a lot of fun,” Hunt said. ”We knew from the get-go it was going to be a Monday night football game, the only game in the nation. We wanted to show our skills and make some plays. To me personally … this is where it all started. It’s good to end on this note.”
The Mustangs (7-6) also returned two interceptions for touchdowns, giving them eight for the season to tie the NCAA record set last year by Southern Miss. Hayden Greenbauer picked off Carr and returned it 83 yards with 1:14 left, the final blow to a miserable night for the Bulldogs (9-4).
SMU had seven sacks, more than double the most Fresno State had given up in a game all year.
Garrett Gilbert was effective with his arm and his legs, running for a 17-yard touchdown for the first score of the game and throwing a perfect strike to Darius Johnson for a 21-yard score to answer the Bulldogs’ only touchdown. He rushed for 98 yards on 18 carries and threw for 212 yards.
But this game was decided by the Mustangs’ defense, with Hunt leading the way. He was voted the game’s MVP.
”We tried some slide protections to 92 (Hunt). You know, they beat us,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. ”We tried going empty to spread things out and get it out quick, we tried to max protect. Everything we tried didn’t work.”
Fresno State, the Mountain West Conference champion, has lost its last four bowl games.
SMU, which went 25 years without a bowl after its NCAA death penalty, now has played in a school-record four straight bowls, winning three of them. Hunt was a mystery when that run started in 2009, a gold medalist in the shot put and discus in Beijing at the 2006 Junior World Championships who came to SMU for track and field and turned to football when it was his only hope of scholarship money.
SMU coach June Jones has a knack for taking a chance on athletes from other sports, and he liked what he saw, from the 82-inch wing span to the 4.7 speed in the 40.
”It’s not hard for me to see a world-class athlete who can run like that, has strength like that, has an arm length like that,” Jones said. ”The first scrimmage we had … the only thing I didn’t know was if he was going to be tough enough. The first play we ran a trap and hit him real hard, and he wanted to fight. I said, `OK, we may have a player here.’
”His best football is ahead of him,” Jones said. ”I was really excited, on a national stage, for him to have that kind of a game.”
The Bulldogs turned in a dud.
Fresno State, which had averaged just over 47 points in its last five games, was shut out in the first half for the first time in two years. Carr was too busy running for his life to get the Bulldogs into any kind of offensive rhythm. And when the Bulldogs finally scored with 10:21 left in the third quarter, Gilbert led the Mustangs on a 75-yard drive that he finished with a pinpoint pass to Johnson in the corner for a touchdown.
”That drive there put the game away in essence,” Gilbert said. ”For us to respond like that and put six points on that board was big.”
It allowed Jones to walk out of Aloha Stadium with yet another win.
He was the coach at Hawaii for eight years, leaving after its unbeaten regular season in 2007. Jones now has won 10 straight games in Aloha Stadium, dating to a December 2006 loss to Oregon State.
”I just want to say `Aloha’ to the seniors,” Jones said during the trophy presentation. ”We said we were going to do it and we did it.”
Without hardly breaking a sweat.
The 10 points matched the fewest Fresno State has scored this year, dating to its 20-10 loss to Boise State. Carr was 33-of-54 passing for 362 yards, but most of that came late in the game when the Bulldogs were trying to catch up.
He was overwhelmed by the Mustangs’ defensive front, particularly Hunt, who had two sacks, two forced fumbles and three tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
”When you go three-and-out, it feels like there’s no rhythm at all,” Carr said.
After a dull, scoreless opening quarter, Gilbert shook off one tackle and scored on a 17-yard run. The defense took over from there.
Hunt blew past right tackle Alex Fifita and blindsided Carr, dropping him flat as the ball came loose and was scooped up by Aaron Davis, who returned it 23 yards to the Fresno State 16 until he fumbled it out of bounds. SMU had to settle for a field goal. On the next series, Carr scrambled backward and couldn’t escape an 18-yard sack to the 6, and then Hunt sacked him in the end zone for a safety.
Hunt wasn’t finished. On second-and-7 from the 33, Carr gave it to Robbie Rouse on a delayed handoff, right about the time Hunt showed up to disrupt the play and cause another fumble that Taylor Reed recovered. That drive went backward, and Chase Hover connected from 48 yards.
Jones’ only concern was having to settle for field goals, fearing that might come back to haunt the Mustangs given Fresno State’s explosive offensive. Not to worry. The SMU defense dominated to the very last score.